The Yankees addressed their major pitching needs earlier this offseason by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera to one-year contracts. Their recent focus has been on the position player side, though the Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki signings plug two of their three biggest holes. A right-handed hitting outfielder and DH is still on the agenda for the rest of the winter.
Despite those position player needs, the Yankees also figure to be on the lookout for cheap, long-term help pretty much anywhere on the field given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. Kuroda, Pettitte, and Phil Hughes are all scheduled to become free agents next winter at a time when young arms like Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos, and Dellin Betances have either regressed or gotten hurt. Ivan Nova’s miserable 2012 effort is another pitching black mark as well. The rotation post-2012 is a concern and there won’t be much money available to improve it via free agency.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have tons of pitching. Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer are all signed or under team control for several years, plus they have Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly in reserve. Both pitchers are reportedly available in trades and drawing interest, and there’s a natural fit here because the Yankees could use some young arms. Porcello, a New Jersey native, is getting expensive through arbitration and has been generally underwhelming as a big leaguer (4.55 ERA and 4.26 FIP). He’s not a great fit for New York. Smyly, on the other hand, might be. Let’s break his game down.
- First things first: Smyly is left-handed and that’s always a plus in Yankee Stadium. Baseball America ranked him as Detroit’s third best prospect before the season, and they call him a future number three or four starter in their subscriber-only scouting report.
- “Smyly has an advanced understanding of how to attack hitters, which allows his average stuff to play up,” wrote Baseball America, who also praised his delivery and deception. “He throws his fastball at 87-92 mph with slight tailing life, commanding it down in the zone … He uses both a curveball and a slider, with scouts split on which is more effective. He also has a splitter-like changeup and a mid-80s cutter.”
- PitchFX data confirms the scouting report and says Smyly’s fastball lived at 92 in the show rather than topping out there. He pitched to a 3.99 ERA (3.83 FIP) with strong strikeout (8.52 K/9 and 22.6 K%) and walk (2.99 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%) rates in 99.1 big league innings this summer. His minor league numbers (9.7 K/9 and 26.5 K%, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.5 BB%) are just as impressive in 143.2 total innings. Yeah, the Tigers aren’t shy about rushing their pitchers up the ladder.
- Smyly did not pick up a full season’s worth of service time in 2012, so he remains under team control for six more years. He also has at least two and possibly all three minor league options remaining as well.
- Smyly had a stress fracture in his elbow as a college freshman at Arkansas and missed six weeks with a sore arm in 2011. He threw 121 total innings this year and his career-high is 126 a year ago. He’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-3, 190 lbs.), but he has yet to prove his durability. There’s no way to reasonably expect 30 starts and 200 innings from him in 2013.
- It’s only 243 total innings, but Smyly has been fly ball prone as a professional. His minor league ground ball rate (45.9%) is lower than what you’d expect to see from a good pitching prospect, and in the big leagues he kept the ball on the ground just 39.9% of the time. As a result, he can be homer prone.
- Smyly picked up enough service time this season that he’ll surely qualify for Super Two status and be arbitration-eligible four times instead of the usual three. Young players can get expensive in a hurry as Super Twos.
I like Smyly more than Baseball America seems too, but there’s no shame in being projected as a number three or four starter anyway. A lot of people seem to take that as an insult. Smyly, who turned 23 in June, has shown five pitches at the big league level and both the willingness and ability (these aren’t the same things) to throw strikes. He also hasn’t shown much (if any) of a platoon split thanks to the cutter. That’s all you can ask for from a young starter in the American League and his debut this season should be considered a positive sign. No doubt about it.
The Tigers are a pretty stacked team with few holes to fill, but their bullpen is still lacking in a major way. They insist they’re willing to open the season with prospect right-hander Bruce Rondon in the closer role, but I don’t buy that for a second. Owner Mike Ilitch didn’t spend all that money to have a kid with a 5.8 BB/9 (15.1 BB%) in the minors over the last two seasons pitching the late-innings. It’s not just the ninth inning either, they need setup help as well.
The Yankees don’t have a ton of relief depth to use in a trade, but for six years of Smyly they could totally offer up two years of David Robertson. There are enough free agent relievers still available — Matt Lindstrom, Mark Lowe, Brandon Lyon, and even Rafael Soriano stand out — that New York could find a capable replacement(s) for Robertson should they move him. Smyly would give them some much-needed young pitching depth from the left side, someone who could step right into a big league rotation if need be or spend time in Triple-A if things get crowded. It would be a very risky move, but also one that could help the Yankees both win now and win later.